On-ramping to a Product Team

Onboarding to a product team can be tough. The existing team is too busy for hand holding, and multi-featured applications can leave you overwhelmed by a “where do I start?” feeling. You not only need to learn how everything works, but you need to understand the rationale behind key design and development decisions that will inform your work going forward. It can be a daunting task.

I know this journey well. Four years ago, I started my UX career at Harvest, a company which makes a time-tracking application known by the same name. Onboarding to a product with a robust feature set and a considerable user base was a formidable task, especially for a UX newbie. However, this experience was an entirely positive one, and it set me up for success when I started at Viget in July 2013. Thanks to my existing product experience, I was able to smoothly transition onto the Vitae team, which was preparing to launch the information and career hub for higher-ed professionals, and quickly become a contributing team member.

Through my experience with both Vitae and Harvest, I’ve learned that having a focused on-ramping process can make all the difference. Whether you’re working at a product company or an agency that builds products, the key to gaining a basic understanding of any app comes down to answering a few standard questions and having an agenda for your exploration.

The Basics – Chatting with Team Members

To start, talk with project managers and/or lead UX designers to gain a basic understanding of the product. They’ll have the best insights into the product development process and how everything came together. Your conversations should focus on three things:

  • What the app is trying to accomplish.
  • Who is using the app.
  • Challenges that will affect your work going forward.

To be clear, having a comprehensive understanding of your users and value propositions will take time. The goal of these conversations is simply to gain some direction, so you know what features and flows deserve the most attention when you start exploring.

The Deep Dive – Exploring the App

Ok, now comes the hard part – you need to start using the app, but where do you begin? Without a plan, this can feel like a dive off the deep end.

The obvious place to start is with the major features in the app, but this goes beyond familiarizing yourself with the steps in each flow. You’ll want to take note of how different flows work together so you start developing an understanding of the product as a whole. In addition, there are three major things you should consider:

  • User permissions – User permissions can have a huge impact on how someone interacts with an app, so you’ll want to look at the different flows in the app as each user type.
  • How the app behaves on different devices – Is the app responsive, or does it have different desktop and mobile versions? You’ll definitely want to explore how different devices affect the user experience.
  • Common design patterns – Look for common interaction styles (i.e. a trash can icon vs. X button vs. Delete button to delete something), so you’re ready to create consistent designs when the time comes.

Exploring the app in whatever free time you have is a great idea, but it’s not the only way to get acquainted with a new tool. Here are three ways you can not only learn, but also make yourself an invaluable team member:

  • Work in customer support – If you’re working at a product company with an existing user base, like Harvest, working in customer support is a  great way to get familiar with major and minor flows, specific interactions, and pain points in the app. My first two months at Harvest were spent working on support full time, and I can’t imagine a better way to have gotten to know the app.
  • QA the app – If you’re coming onto a product team close to launch, as I did with Vitae, QA is the perfect way to explore the app.Your team members will also be grateful for your help, making this a double-win.
  • Design for the app – One of the best ways to get to know different design patterns is to start designing for the app. If you have the opportunity to pair-design with someone who is familiar with the app, take it. This lets you ask questions in real time, which is much faster than trial and error. If you’re working on your own, designing forces you to double and triple check patterns within the app, so you’re presenting design updates that are consistent and usable.

The important thing to remember is that you won’t get to know every detail of a product right away. Your mission is to create a good foundation from which you can understand and design for the app. Make sure your discovery period is focused and meaningful, and you’ll be a contributing team member in no time.

Samara is a user experience designer in Viget's Falls Church, VA, HQ, where she works with clients such as Catholic Charities and the White House Historical Association. She enjoys sketching, creating information architecture, and teaching UX to fresh industry faces.

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